BOOK REVIEW: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris

The Dinner Party’ is the first short story collection from accomplished writer and Man-Booker shortlisted author Joshua Ferris. A book that has a raw spicy freshness to it, like Sushi and Wasabi. Ferris’ voice is clear and distinctive offering a menu of wonderfully constructed and beautifully written delights.

These stories are constructed with great care and attention, ensuring each one is suitably garnished to perfection. Each story benefits from being sprinkled with comedy, drizzled with brilliant observations and served up with the best intentions. The characters portrayed within the pages are not the most pleasant of individuals but they easily slide down the gullet with the full-bodied prose that is on offer.

Ferris has the most brilliant eye for detail. It is similar to when you hear great comedian cracking an observational joke (Peter Kay comes straight to mind) and you turn to the person next to you and say ‘yeah he’s nailed it.’ I found myself doing this repeatedly whilst reading this collection. With his opening and title, story ‘The Dinner Party’ Ferris perfectly sums up the thoughts and feelings of a married couple getting ready for a, you guessed it, dinner party.

‘”They come in,” he said, “we take their coats. Everyone talks in a big hurry, as if we didn’t have four long hours ahead of us. We self-medicate with alcohol. A lot of things are discussed, different issues. Everyone laughs a lot, but later no one can say what exactly was so witty. Compliments on the food. A couple of monologues. The they start to yawn, we start to yawn. They say, ‘We should think about leaving, huh?’ and we politely look away, like they’ve just decided to take a crap on the dinner table. Everyone stands, one of us gets their coats, peppy goodbyes. We all say what a lovely evening, do it again soon, blah-blah-blah. And then they leave and we talk about them and they hit the streets and talk about us.”’

Ferris expertly sums up the fears, dullness and constant battle people have with keeping up appearances (just me and my wife then? Let us continue). You can feel the angst dripping from the pages. His story though, does not end there. He treats the short story with such care and attention, as if he has been writing in this genre for years, so much so that the conclusion to this is both subtle and powerful.

It reminded me of a time when my wife and I were having some friends over for dinner, the first time since having our daughter. Adjusting to becoming new parents. The house was a tip. I ran around cleaning and tidying. My wife busied herself in the kitchen preparing a wonderful meal; we had gone to town, as we were not quite sure when we would next be expecting guests. So at 7pm dinner was ready. Table laid. But no guests. They didn’t turn up.

It was getting late about 9pm. The food had been waiting so long it had grown its own skin. We hadn’t eaten and were starving. So giving into our stomachs, we began to dish ourselves up some food, that’s when the doorbell went. They strolled in as nothing was wrong. What made matters worse is they stayed until 2:30am – our daughter would be waking up in four hours. Mental.

A Night Out’ is one of my favourite stories in the collection. A faithless husband goes out for dinner with his wife and on their way to meet his in-laws all hell breaks loose. His wife’s inquisitiveness and a case of mistaken identity set off a chain reaction that is both hilarious and fiercely written. There is a beautiful scene at the start of the story where we see Tom walking along the street thumbing some monetary note, when a tramp asks for it, but he doesn’t even acknowledge her. Ferris uses a great mirroring technique forming a wonderful story arch as we find out by the end that the roles will reverse and Tom will find himself begging for his supper. Masterfully delivered and brilliantly paced with tremendous depth. His ability to create such detailed three-dimensional characters that you care so much about, in such a short space of time is nothing short of phenomenal.

“’How are you, Dylan?”

Nor had he given her his real name.

“Are these your parents?” she asked

All the blood drained from his face. “Yes,” he replied faintly.

“We’re his wife’s parents,” Emily said. “Do you two know each other?”

“Your wife’s parents,” Melissa said to Tom.

“Did you just call him Dylan?” Sid asked.

“Uh, can we have a word?” he said, removing his napkin from his lap. Panicked, stupefied, he failed to rise any further.

Melissa smiled at him viciously. “Yes,” she said finally to Emily, turning to her, “We do know each other. Dylan and I were seeing each other until about a month ago, when I just never heard from him again.”

“What does she mean, Tom, ‘seeing each other’?” Sid asked.

“I don’t know,” Tom said. “Nothing.”

“You son of a bitch,” Melissa said.’

Ghost Town Choir’ is a hidden gem. Slightly different from the other pieces within the collection, a slower pace and focusing on the relationship of a mother and son and the secret maternal bond of protection and wanting to give her child everything they never had. The story centres on a young boy, his mother and his mother’s boyfriend. It is a story about love, loss, struggle, never being content with what you have and of course possessions. I just felt a real connection to the piece. A lovely story with an intrinsic beauty. Uncomplicated. Well written. An anthropological study of the obsession we have with things and their place in our lives. An elegantly seasoned story by Ferris that leaves the mouth-watering from wonderfully crafted prose, deployed with ease.

‘More Abandon (or whatever happened to Joe Pope?)’ is another fabulous story. An office worker staying after hours causes mischief and chaos in the offices that he works. He moves a shrine to a dead baby from one of his co-worker’s office and replaces it with all the photos from another colleague’s office who is obsessed by pigs. He calls to leave a message on one of his co-workers phones who he has an infatuation with but then struggles in trying to remove the message before she comes into work the following morning. This one for me is where Ferris lets his black comedy free; an undertow that is in most of the stories, but in this one he goes to town and I feel the work benefits greatly from Ferris’ unashamed dark side of funny.

‘He takes the bag full of pigs and enters Janine Gorjanc’s office. When Janine returned after her child’s funeral, she cried during input meetings. Once she cried walking into the men’s room without realizing her mistake. She encouraged everyone who came into her office to read the newspaper clippings she kept in an album and to pick up the frames on her desk and look into the blue eyes of the dead girl. Months have passed since then when Joe takes on of the frames in his hands – it is now as dusty as Megan’s pigs. He collects all the frames from the desk and the credenza and those hanging on the wall and puts them in a corner. Everyone has grown so familiar with the girl’s tragedy that they don’t see her face anymore. Not even her mother, who on some days can be very busy.’

As with all dinner parties there are some courses that you find repeat on you. It is a rare thing, as generally I will consume anything you put in front of me both food and literature; but there was one story I could not get on board with, that being ‘The Breeze’. I found the narration within this particular story quite chaotic and I struggled with understanding its flow and structure. The narration was confusing and left me having to keep re-reading sections to get my head around what was happening and that unfortunately detached me from enjoying the story.

All in all ‘The Dinner Party’ is a collection that deals with male inadequacies. Ferris does a tremendous job of displaying his observations of males in varying situations and I feel that he has nailed many of my shortcomings in numerous stories within.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know, I guess I’ll have to invite you for dinner to find out.

I felt ‘The Dinner Party’ was a thought-provoking and insightful read, with morally inept protagonists, marinated in the sumptuous juices of black comedy. I can only hope Ferris serves up a second course of the short story variety. Yum.

JOSHUA FERRIS

Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris was born in Illinois in 1974. He is the author of Then We Came to the End (2007), which was nominated for the National Book Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and the highly acclaimed The Unnamed. In 2010 he was selected for the New Yorker’s prestigious ’20 under 40′ list. In 2014 To Rise Again at a Decent Hour won the Dylan Thomas Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in upstate New York.

The Dinner Party was published by published by Viking on 29th June 2017

You can purchase a copy of The Dinner Party from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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Review by Ross Jeffery

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